(Poetry Criticism)

Wang Wei 699?–761?

(Also called Wang Mo-ch'i). Chinese poet.

The poet-painter Wang Wei is ranked among the most illustrious men of arts and letters from the Tang dynasty, one of the great golden ages of Chinese cultural history. Traditionally viewed as the father of monochrome landscape painting (the Southern School), Wang is also recog nized as one of the few poets, along with the highly re vered T'ang poets Li Po and Tu Fu, to master the art of "lyric poetry" (shih). Wang's poems, chiefly characterized by their meditative symbolism and graceful simplicity, exemplified his belief that poetry and painting were mirrors of one another, each medium was meant to emulate and reflect the beauty of the other. Although a distinguished court poet, Wang is most widely regarded for his nature poems, a body of verse that explores the edifying beauty of the natural world.

Biographical Information

Wang was born to a powerful noble family in Ch'i-hsien, located in Shansi Province. His family had a tradition of government service, and he counted thirteen prime ministers among his ancestors. Wang was well educated as befitted a future courtier, and he excelled in poetry, music, and art. Indeed, his remarkable poetic abilities were apparent as early as the age of nine. Wang easily passed the government examinations and, at the age of 21, received the prestigious chin-shih ("advanced scholar") degree in the imperial civil-service examination system. This "doctoral" degree was principally based on his musical skill. After passing the examination, Wang was appointed Assistant Director of the Imperial Directorate of Music. This was the first of what was to be many government appointments. Wang pursued an unremarkable career in the service of the imperial government, serving in various official capacities and suffering professional setbacks due to political upheaval. During the An Lu-shan Rebellion, Wang was captured and forced to serve the rebel administration. The intercession of his high-ranking brother Wang Chin, together with the contents of a poem Wang composed while imprisoned by the rebel forces, helped save him from charges of collaboration with the enemy when imperial forces recaptured the capital at Ch'ang-an. Wang's later years were overshadowed by disillusionment and sadness following the deaths of his wife and his mother. He died while serving in the Department of State in his early sixties.

Wang Wei's undistinguished official career was frequently interspersed with periods of seclusion in the grounds of his private villa at Wan Ch'uan (Wang River), where he sought respite from the intrigue, corruption, and uncertainty of court life. The poems he composed while studying Buddhism and meditating in the quiet of nature reveal his love for landscape and country living together with his longing for peace and seclusion. The outward simplicity of his poems' imagery belies the profoundly metaphysical nature of the underlying concepts, that of man's place in nature and the pursuit of enlightenment through denial and retreat from the world. It has been argued that much of the conflict in Wang Wei's life and poetry springs from the contrary inclinations resulting from the dual influence of Confucianism, which urges political ambition, and Taoism, which teaches quiet meditation and a passive attitude regarding events in the physical world.

Major Works

Of the 420 poems in Wang Wei's canon, there are approximately 370 poems that can be genuinely attributed to him. The style of the poems is simple and uncomplicated, and the underlying feelings are those of tranquility and detachment. The poems fall into three general categories: court poems that capture a vignette of life in the Imperial court, Buddhist themes and images, and nature scenes stripped of all ornament. The poems in this last category are his most famous, and include the Wangch'uan chi (Felly River Collection), a twenty-quatrain poem describing his country villa. Other well-known poems include "Answering Magistrate Chang," an example of a court poem, and Wang's "Deer Park," one of the most-often-anthologized Chinese poems, frequently cited as an archetypal nature poem. Wang's poetry is considered in the same league as Tu Fu and Li Po, the great T'ang lyric poets. While it lacks exuberance of Li Po or the controlled intellectuality of Tu Fu, Wang's poetry fuses literature and art with nature in the most simple and placid language.

Critical Reception

Despite Wang Wei's popularity in China and the West, he has been the subject of very few critical studies in any language. Some critics speculate that the primary reason for this neglect is that the apparent simplicity of much of Wang's poetry obscures the disconcertingly elusive philosophical premises from which Wang draws his inspiration, and the complexity of these ideas discourages penetrating analysis of his poetry. Despite the paucity of critical analysis concerning his poetry, Wang Wei remains one of the most translatable and widely translated of Chinese poets. Indeed, Wang Wei's poetry can be found in nearly every anthology of Chinese poetry available.

Principal Translated Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Hiding the Universe: Poems by Wang Wei (poetry) [translated by Wai-lim Yip] 1972

Poems of Wang Wei (poetry) [translated by G. W. Robinson] 1973

The Poetry of Wang Wei (poetry) [translated PaulineYu] 1980

Laughing Lost in the Mountains: Poems of Wang Wei (poetry) [translated by Tony Barnstone, Willis Barnstone, and Xu Haixin] 1992

Fe Obaña (essay date 1970)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Discovering Chinese Poetry (an insight into three poems by Wang Wei)," in The Diliman Review, Vol. XVIII, No. 1, January, 1970, pp. 91-6.

[In the following essay, the critic examines the function of imagery in Chinese nature poems.]

"My Hermitage in the Bamboo Grove"

Deep in the bamboo grove, sitting alone,
I thrum my lute as I whistle a tune.
No one knows I am in this thicket
Save the bright moon looking down on me.

"With Official Lu Hsiang, Passing Hermit Ts'ui Hsin-Chung's Bower"

Green forests cover the four directions with dense deep shade.
Every day untrodden mosses cushion the courtyard more thickly in bluish gray.
Under tall pines the hermit sprawls, leg outstretched,
Turning upon the vulgar crowd only the whites of his eyes.

"Light Verse on a Rock"

I pity the inert rock by a flowing stream
And the willows trailing fingers into my wine-cup …
But who can say the spring wind is not aware of the sound in my heart?
Why else should it blow these frail falling petals about me?

This paper makes no pretension towards an adequate critical evaluation of Wang Wei. Rather it is a personal appreciation of a poet who must suffer a reading in translation. And since the problem of translation belongs to Linguistics proper, it will suffice to note that this paper describes a personal insight into Chinese poetry.

The delicate balance maintained between a picturesque description of Nature and the feeling or sentiments evoked by this poetic landscape is the primary characteristic that my readings have made me conscious of. Basically, this delicate balance relies heavily on the disciplined control of the imagery, the pivotal vessel gathering the formal construction and the affective translation of the formal construction into poetry. Viewed in the light of the Chinese language and grammar—each character representing an idea and with an absence of grammatical connectives—my attention was arrested by the sequence of images that a Chinese poem contained, their possible symbolic range or associations (within my limited frame of reference not extending towards the realm of Chinese scholarship), their contextual allusions and derivations (as illuminated upon by textual footnoting). [Liv James, The Art of Chinese Poetry, 1962.] A comprehensive insight into the functional relations of the imagery and its effective attributes consequently gives the theme.

The first two poems, "My Hermitage in the Bamboo Grove" and "With Official Lu Hsiang, Passing Hermit Ts'ui Hsiu-Chung's Bower" have for their subject matter the Buddhic hermit, or the learned sage. To the Chinese he is the highest expression of the ideal man. The first poem is simple enough having for the first two lines a description of his condition as a recluse "deep in the bamboo grove … thrum(ing a) lute as (he) whistle a tune". The last two lines however emphasize the aspect of solitude in his life. "No one knows I am in this thicket/Save the bright moon looking down on me." "The bright moon" becomes the sympathetic companion of his contemplative days.

The second poem although bearing for its subject matter the solitary hermit, too, uses imagery that describes more sharply the life of a hermit "under tall pines … sprawls, legs outstretched" and defines his superiority over the "vulgar crowd (with) the whites of his eyes". The "Bamboo grove" has been replaced by a more impenetrable locale "green forests" which "cover the four directions" leading towards the center which is the hermit's abode. The idea of being in the crossroads of man's life is contradicted by the "untrodden mosses cushion the courtyard more thickly in bluish gray (everyday)". Perhaps if...

(The entire section is 1649 words.)

Wai-lim Yip (essay date 1971-72)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Wang Wei and the Aesthetic of Pure Experience," in Tamkang Review, Vol. 2, No. 2, October 1971-April 1972, pp. 199-208.

[In the following essay, the critic asserts that Wang Wei's nature poetry is not simply about nature but that it actually becomes nature through the Taoist emphasis on pure experience.]


The best introduction to Wang Wei's poetry is a poem of Ars Poetica by Ssu-k'ung T'u (837-908):

Bend down—and there it is:
No need to wrest it from others.
With the Way, in complete consort—
The mere touch of a hand is spring:
The way we come upon...

(The entire section is 2904 words.)

Marsha L. Wagner (review date 1973)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Poems of Wang Wei, in Literature East & West, Vol. XVII, No. 2, 3, 4, June, September, and December, 1973, pp. 421-23.

[In this review, Wagner comments favorably on G. W. Robinson's translations of Wang Wei's poems and praises his poetic judgment.]

… G. W. Robinson's graceful translations of over 120 of Wang Wei's poems constitute the most successful English version to date.

Robinson's selection generally overlaps previous translations, emphasizing Wang Wei's most popular and personal poetry while avoiding more heavily allusive court poems and Buddhist poems. It is regrettable that Robinson did not include more poems...

(The entire section is 959 words.)

Stephen Owen (essay date 1981)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Wang Wei: The Artifice of Simplicity," in The Great Age of Chinese Poetry: The High T'ang, Yale University Press, 1981, pp. 27-51.

[In the following excerpt, Owen examines the perceived conflict between public and private life in Wang Wei's poetry.]

Wang Wei, your brother, was the most revered man of letters in all the world. He served throughout the former reign, and his fame was great among the treasures of the age. High he soared among Chou's Odes; deeply he reverenced the Songs of Ch'u. In all his works the humors of the cosmos were in harmony, and the rules of musicality were correct in his noble rhymes. The waterfall sent his lush...

(The entire section is 9653 words.)

Chou Shan (essay date 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Beginning with Images in the Nature Poetry of Wang Wei," Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 42, No. 1, June, 1982, pp. 117-36.

[In the following essay, the critic argues that the nature poems contain "the essence of Wang Wei's achievement" and that they describe the relationship of landscape to poetry.]

Wang Wei (701-61) is a poet whose reputation primarily rests on his nature poems. Although in the poems which have survived other themes are well represented—elaborate and perfect poems about the emperor's court, sentimental sketches of bucolic life, poems expressing friend ship—it is with the nature poems that his name is universally identified. The...

(The entire section is 5806 words.)

A. C. Ang (essay date 1989)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Taoist-Buddhist Elements in Wang Wei's Poetry," in Chinese Culture, Vol. XXX, No. 1, March, 1989, pp. 79-89.

[In this essay, Ang examines the role language plays in Wang Wei's poetry and assesses its effect on mood and theme.]

My heart has always been serene:
The clear river is equally at peace.

Wang Wei's (701-761) poetry is often characterized by its harmonious and integrated tone. As a poet-painter and devout Buddhist, Wang Wei's poetry presents a concrete natural world not only pictorially but also transcendentally or metaphysically. In other words, he expresses his poems aesthetically and...

(The entire section is 2699 words.)

Haili Kong (essay date 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Point of View—The Narrative Quality in Wang Wei's Poems," in Tamkang Review, Vol. 24, No. 2, Winter, 1993, pp. 2-18.

[In the following essay, the critic explores how Wang Wei's "'painter's eye' influenced his poetic narration."]

There are paintings in the poems of Wang Wei, and there are poems in his paintings.

—Su Shih
(Ch'üan T'ang shih 125. 1234)

Wang Wei occupies a special position among the most famous T'ang poets for many reasons. One of the reasons for this, I think, is the narrative quality in his poems, especially his way of handling point of view....

(The entire section is 4962 words.)

Sam Hamill (essay date 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Wang Wei and Saigyo: Two Buddhist Mountain Poets," in American Poetry Review, Vol. 22, No. 2, March/April, 1993, pp. 45-8.

[In the following excerpt, Hamill explores the Buddhist influences on Wang Wei's poetry and empahsizes the impact classical T'ang dynasy poetry has had on modern American poetry.]

Perhaps no aspect of classical Chinese poetry in translation has touched contemporary American verse more deeply than the "nature poery" of the T'ang dynasty. From the three hundred-odd poems of Cold Mountain (Han Shan), poems that often fall into a kind of Buddhist doggerel, to the almost selfless poems of Wang Wei, the western poet has been drawn to the...

(The entire section is 3134 words.)

Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Bynner, Witter. "At the Foot of This Mountain." Poetry. Vol. XCVI, No. 5 (August 1960): 309-13.

Assesses the influence of Taoism on Wang's poetry.

Pollack, David. "Wang Wei in Kamakura: A Consideration of the Structural Poetics of Mishima's Spring Snow." Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies. Vol. 48, No. 2 (December 1988): 383-402.

Examines Wang's influence on Mishima Yukio's novel Spring Snow.

Robinson, G. W. "Introduction." in Poems of Wang Wei, pp. 13-25. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd., 1973.


(The entire section is 201 words.)